Staff Recognition, Stefanie Ickert

Staff Recognition, Stefanie Ickert


Stefanie Ickert’s outstanding work as Student Services Coordinator was recognized at an annual Faculty of Arts meeting. Dean and Vice-Provost, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, Susan Porter noted Stefanie’s exemplary service in Geography’s graduate program. She is one of two staff members singled out for this commendation.

Minister Catherine McKenna Visits GEOG 312


Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, visited GEOG 312 (Climate Change, Science and Society) on March 3rd as part of her visit to UBC.

McKenna talked briefly about the difficult negotiations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference but remains optimistic about making realistic changes to combat climate change as she saw “leaders of all backgrounds… all working together on the agreement”. She talked about how everyone has a role to play in combating climate change, from federal to provincial governments, to the students sitting in front of her that day. In an age of rapid technological advancement and innovation, youth have a significant role in the direction technology goes. McKenna expressed optimism and hope while viewing various UBC sustainability initiatives and she told the students that it is exactly that “out of the box thinking” that we need to combat climate change and that the communication pathway between communities, (eg. governments, students, businesses) have to be open in order for our larger community to work together.

The Minister ended the talk by opening the floor to questions from students who asked about potential nuclear energy innovations, a plastic bag free future, carbon pricing in Canada, the state of our environmental assessment process, and current fossil fuel subsidies.

Arthur Green in Geography uses PulsePress to encourage student discussion

Arthur “Gill” Green, a post-doctoral fellow at UBC Geography teaching GEOB 370, talks to Arts ISIT about using PulsePress to encourage student discussion in classes. Read the original article here.

Back Story

There were several reasons I opted to use PulsePress as our discussion board for the Advanced Geographic Information Science course. First, positively reinforce learning in the course by encouraging students to learn how to best frame questions and respond to questions of their peers. Second, practicing GIS professionals and researchers that use Geographic Information Systems know the importance of reaching out for and offering help on online discussion boards (for example, see the very active communities on GIS Stack Exchange and ESRI’s GeoNet). I wanted students to gain experience interacting on such discussion boards to encourage them to start to use and contribute to online GIS discussion boards. Third, alleviate instructor and TA email overload! By making my responses to common questions available to the students, this avoids repetitive emails. Moreover, the TA, Emily Acheson has been very active on the board helping student troubleshoot problems. This lets me see what some of the troubles are that occur in our GIS labs. Finally, PulsePress was the main way that we could integrate a discussion board into our course website in WordPress on UBC Blogs.

How did you use Pulse Press in your course and what made you decide to do this?

I used PulsePress as a discussion board where students could ask and respond to questions. With a large class of 70 students, it is often difficult to encourage participation. I decided to give a portion of their participation grade to their participation on the discussion board. My rubric specifies a specific quantity and quality of posts – posts that can be anything from good questions to useful responses or sharing materials and events.

What has been the result?

Both the TA and I have been very happy with our ability to respond as a team to troubleshoot student problems, but the greatest success is when I see students helping other students. Throughout our PulsePress board, we have students responding to each other about GIS problems and important conceptual issues (like what is the difference between a geodatabase and a shapefile). I am very pleased and I would recommend this to instructors of large classes – especially wherein there is an applied component of students working together on problems. One of the best parts of the interface is how students can use tagging and direct their posts to certain people using Twitter like handles “@somebody” to start or maintain a discussion.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and is there anything about your approach you would improve or change?

The challenges have been mostly technical rather than logistical. That is, occasionally when students post their questions or comments they don’t see an immediate update on their page as the page does not refresh. Another small issue is that I am currently not notified for posts, though I am for comments on my post. So, if a student posts a question, I may not see it until I go to the forum. When I post an announcement, all replies to the announcement come to my inbox. Also, if I join into a conversation by replying, I receive notification of all replies to that conversation. Students also sometimes forget to tag their posts, so I go through and add tags when I think they will help people find relevant information. These are not really problems, but things to be aware of when implementing PulsePress.


“The online forum is an incredible time saver for professors and TAs. As a TA, I no longer receive dozens of emails repeating the same questions every week. Those emails used to take me hours to reply to, and I often repeated myself in each one. With Pulse Press, I answer student questions on an open blog that all the students can see. They can reply, ask for clarifications, and I can refer them to previous responses so I don’t have to rewrite instructions.

Another neat feature used by Dr. Green on the online forum is a Twitter-like feature where students can tag me or Dr. Green specifically, or other students they met in class. If I am tagged, I immediately receive an email notification that a student needs help. It was great when a student forgot her partner’s last name but needed to message him. She was able to find him in the class list using the Tag feature and messaged him on the forum.

I used to think setting up a blog would be a huge challenge. While there are still little hiccups, the overall experience has been fantastic, time saving, helpful and interactive for students, and a great way to put all student questions in one place. I highly recommend this design for any course, particularly courses with one or more TAs. I am also inspired to try setting up my own blog using the PulsePress website.”

–Emily Acheson, Teaching Assistant GEOB 370

Do you have any advice for instructors hoping to implement this in their course?

Definitely setup a “sandbox” installation on UBC Blogs to start to play with the interface. The only way you learn the best ways to use it is by playing with it and actually deploying it in your course. While PulsePress has been used for backchannel discussion in large classes, it has been very powerful in my course as an easy to access discussion board. Unlike some other learning management systems, it is easy to find and interact with other on our discussion board. When students are on the course website, they click once and they are there ready to talk. Finally, watch your security settings. When implementing this technology on UBC Blogs you want to make sure you have setup your website so that only students are enrolled – that is, either behind a CWL, manual enrollment of the students, or have students sign up as a site subscriber with a course password. I think this is a great technology for any medium to large enrollment course that needs an injection of student participation!

Simon Donner, Climate Action Plan 2020


Congratulations Simon Donner for having one of the winning submissions of UBC Campus + Community Planning’s Climate Action Plan 2020‘s call for ideas. His idea is to “decrease GHG emissions from university related air travel. UBC would collect baseline data on air travel emissions from business and research-related travel and use this to create a university air travel action plan.”

See the other winning submissions here.

Visiting Scholar, Natasha Picone


Dr. Natasha Picone from the Instituto de Geografía, Historia y Ciencias Sociales (IGEHCS), CONICET – UNCPBA, in Argentina is a visiting scholar at UBC Geography until May 2016.

Dr. Natasha Picone is an urban climatologist. She studies urban heat islands using ground-based surveys and space-based satellite measurements, and teaches courses in geographical information science and remote sensing.

During her visit with our micrometeorology group at UBC Geography, she will develop prototypes of low-cost, distributed mobile sensors based on the Arduino processor to map the urban heat island on bikes and cars using GPS and temperature / humidity sensors.

Visiting Scholar, Paula Schönach


Dr. Paula Schönach holds a post-doctoral position at the University of Helsinki in the Department of Environmental Sciences and is the working group coordinator for the Finnish Water Forum. She will be here at UBC Geography for the next few months working on various projects in water history.

Paula is currently conducting a comparative study of the history of ice in Helsinki and Berlin.

The breadth of her work and its interdisciplinary nature can be gauged by the range of journals in which she has published from Global Environment to Ambio to Environment and History, as well as several Finnish journals.

Meet Laura Hempel, Visiting PhD Student

Laura is a visiting student from Oregon State University, where she is working on her PhD in Geology. She has been working with Dr. Marwan Hassan in the Geo-Fluvial lab for several months.

My fluvial journey

I study how rivers work, aka fluvial geomorphology. I wish I had a cute and inspirational story about how rivers deeply affected my life as a child and led me to pursue this field. Instead, I only learned of its existence as a sophomore at University, but once I did I was hooked on the thrill of discovering the how and why with my first geomorphology class. By nature I am a curious person, and as a kid I would get in trouble for asking too many questions in class. But as an undergraduate I found that my questions were not suppressed, but encouraged! It was exciting to revisit my home or family along the east coast and apply my new-found knowledge of rivers and landscapes to interpret and make sense of what I saw. Those crystal clear rivers in Florida that I grew up swimming in and canoeing down had beautiful trees growing right up to the edge of the river, with branches shading the water. The water was so clear because these rivers originated from deep springs with very little sediment to muddy the waters, and trees grew right up to and over the channel because the springs were so constant and so the rivers never flooded. Now, everywhere I travel I see new landscapes and find new questions.


Figure 1 Inner tubing down the Ichetucknee River, a spring-fed river in Florida

Fundamentally rivers seem pretty simple, just water and sediment rolling downhill. But in practice, predicting how a river might look given a certain set of conditions, or predicting how a river will respond to even a small perturbation, can be a complex and challenging problem. The key to solving questions in fluvial geomorphology is to simplify the problem enough to solve it, while still capturing enough of the complexity to explain the governing processes. I’ve found rivers to be uniquely intriguing subjects for several reasons (in no particular order):

  • Rivers are everywhere on earth and are therefore universal to the human experience. No matter where you live or where you grew up, you’ve seen/touched/crossed/canoed/rafted/photographed/experienced a river. Everyone has the ability to understand river processes and the value of river science.
  • Unlike many geologic processes, rivers change on human timescales, and in some cases can change rapidly over just a few hours
  • As the lowest point on a landscape, rivers reflect and integrate all characteristics of the landscape upstream
  • Rivers are governed by processes that occur on multiple timescales, and in this sense can have a certain ‘memory’. A ‘modern’ river could be the product of an event that occurred thousands or even millions of years ago
  • Almost all rivers are outside, so studying rivers can satisfy a PhD and your recreation quota
  • As long as there are humans and as long as there are rivers, humans will live next to rivers and their houses will get flooded #jobsecurity

What I’m studying at UBC

Imagine two rivers that are identical; same climate, same lithology, same vegetation, same grain size, same slope, same bedforms, same bed texture, same everything. Now imagine that faults deep in the earth shift and the groundwater network, the plumbing, of these two rivers become different while the physical characteristics of the rivers remained the same. Following this shift, one river has a constant flow rate that never changes over the course of the year, while the other river experiences small floods during the rainy season and, on rare occasions, a big flood. Many years after the flow history of these two rivers diverged, scientists from Oregon State University came along and found that the total amount of sediment transported by the rivers was identical! Meaning each river performed the same amount of geomorphic ‘work,’ but one did so slowly and steadily, while the other did so during short but intense flood periods.

What do these two rivers look like? How are they similar and how are they different? How do differences in flow over time lead to differences in the configuration and structure of the channels?

These are the fundamental questions that my broader research aims to answer. In lieu of the perfect field site, I’ve been testing the degree to which the flow regime, or the temporal pattern of streamflow, controls channel form through a series of physical experiments at the UBC geo-fluvial lab. You can find more info about these experiments on my website at


Figure 2 Left, Photo of me adjusting the sediment feeder. Right, photo of a flume experiment


Photos courtesy of Laura Hempel

What does it mean to be a Geographer?

In January 2016, PhD Students, Leonora King and Marc Tadaki hosted the first ever graduate student “workshop to discuss human and physical geographical identity”. An interesting and unique initiative, I read the blog post that accompanied the workshop invitation which highlighted the difficult question of what it means to be a geographer, especially in a department where community members are often categorized mainly as either “Physical Geographer” or “Human Geographer”, labels that carry very different ideas of identity.

From the blog post, it sounds like this separation between the physical and human geography communities has existed for a long time; it’s the status quo. How did this particular initiative begin? Are there similar initiatives in the department’s history?

From what we have learned, this has been an ongoing conversation within the department and the discipline at large that ebbs and flows with different generations of Geographers. Historically speaking, physical and human geography diverged significantly in the 1970’s when human geography became ‘critical’ and physical geography continued to analyze earth surface processes with increasing use of math and models. This led to very different priorities relating to theories, methods, and politics, making it harder to see the two halves of geography as part of a related whole. Here in our department, interest in the issue comes and goes, and although implicit in many conversations and initiatives, there is no explicit discussion of Geographic identity. Elsewhere in the world, many Geography departments have been and continue to be dismantled into either more specialized (e.g. earth sciences) or more generalized (e.g. environmental studies) institutional arrangements.

Our motivations for the current initiative emerged from reflections with grad students and faculty about whether we do (or should) constitute a departmental ‘family’, and what that might mean. As grads, we find ourselves feeling ignorant of the ‘other half’ and often find it difficult to articulate what ‘being a Geographer’ means, and what sets us apart from other departments that have a lot in common with our particular sub-disciplines. However, we are both increasingly recognizing the value of Geography, and think that much can be done to foster both social and intellectual identification and solidarity across physical and human geography.

I understand from the article that one of your goals is to foster a better understanding of what it means to be a Geographer (Physical or Human). What do you think being a Geographer means?

Marc: I think there is plenty room in our discipline (and department) for a range of ‘geographical imaginations’. For me personally, I quite like Robert Kates’ (1967) idea of mugwumps. Mugwumps are a particular breed of geographer, who “sit astride the social and natural sciences, mug faced toward one and wump solidly planted in the other.” When I think about environmental policy, I find myself honing in on issues of place, history and power. Geography helps me to relate biophysical science to environmental politics by thinking about the ‘production of environmental space’. Whether I focus on water quality regulation, collaborative environmental governance or ecosystem services, at core I care about how historical and unequal social relations interact with the dynamic and contingent biophysical processes in a given place to produce geographies of ecological flourishing (or degradation) and environmental justice (or injustice).

Leo: This is a big question for me and I am not sure I quite have an answer yet. My interest in Geographic identity is new and is something that has resulted from the slow percolation of ideas throughout my PhD, rather than as an explicit result of my research or classroom learning. In a sense, I think that I have moved further away from a Geographic identity through my PhD, now reading mainly geophysical literature and seeking feedback from outside of the department. However, with this meandering research interest has come a deeper appreciation of the way in which Geography requires you to not only conduct rigorous and defensible research of the natural world, but also to maintain an awareness of the social context of your research topic as well as the context within which you do that research. That awareness of context is generally lacking in geophysical research and is what I think sets Geography and Geographers apart from other Earth Scientists.

You list a lot of strategies in the article to cultivate cohesion in the community; which strategy do you think will be the easiest to implement? The hardest?

From an institutional perspective, formal changes (such as changes to undergrad and grad courses) will be difficult to implement as they are often costly and usually met with (often legitimate) resistance. Informal things such as gaining support for home seminars should be both easier to implement (in theory) and help garner support for more formal initiatives. However, we are cognizant that grads already have so many commitments and demands on their time, and it is hard to find the energy to attend an additional workshop or seminar, especially when the benefits of participating are unknown in advance!

How was the first workshop? Did it change/influence your ideas of how you want to approach this initiative?

We had a really valuable and engaged discussion with a small group of grads in the workshop session (there were 7 of us), and we also managed to talk about these things with a dozen or so grads who couldn’t attend the workshop. A few things have come out:

  • Human and physical geographers have different feelings about disciplinary identity
    • human geographers appear to be more comfortable articulating what is ‘geographical’ about their work/approach and why that is valuable. However this geographical imagination rarely (if ever) stretches to include the biophysical environment or physical geography
    • physical geographers tend to identify more with the biogeosciences and are less confident in articulating why being a ‘geographical’ biogeoscientist is a virtue rather than a weakness
  • People polarize around the issue of ‘breadth versus depth’. When talking about core grad courses, there is (legitimate) disagreement about what the work of GEOB 500/GEOG 520 should be. One argument is that these courses should be about developing specialized skills and subdisciplinary knowledge, to accelerate intellectual development and as a way of preparing grads most effectively for competitive job markets. On the other side, however, is an argument that the main function of these courses should be for 1) situating grads’ work within an intellectual tradition and 2) socializing grads and producing a geographical ‘common sense’.

What difficulties have you anticipated in starting this initiative? How do you see the community overcoming these difficulties?

We have encountered three main types of resistance and to the current initiative. Here we will respond to each.

i. We have tried this before… and failed.
This may be true, but does that mean it is not worth trying again? What we need to do is learn from experience – why hasn’t this worked before, and how can we work toward conditions that can help us to realize the value of being in a Geography department?

ii. One must sacrifice depth in order to emphasize breadth.
Does creating a ‘shared’ geographical identity mean that we may need to adjust our priorities in teaching and grad studies? Yes. Will prioritizing physical-human solidarity mean there is less focus (all else being equal) on specialist knowledge and skills? Probably.

But: can we do ‘breadth’ in clever and deep ways that bring unique value to our particular sub-disciplines, while developing valuable social and intellectual foundations? Yes! Should this be a part of being a geographer? Yes! Can we also work on acquiring depth through a range of means, such as a mixed-model of GEOB 500/GEOG 520 or the addition of specialist grad courses? Yes!

iii. The problem of voluntary effort
It is a hard to get people to put voluntary effort in to ‘realizing the value of geography’ when no one seems to know what that value could be (physical geographers) or when people feel comfortable in their own identity and don’t have a burning desire to broaden their disciplinary identification (human geographers).

This is why, while we will be pursuing a range of voluntary initiatives, there needs to be some institutional effort (eventually) to embed some new priorities across a range of activities.

Cultivating geographical identity across human and physical geography in our department is going to be difficult, but we contend that it is necessary if we are going to continue to be a geography department and not disband into something else!

CFI 2015 Grant to Establish Laboratory for Atmospheric Research


UBC Geography / the Faculty of Arts, through a CFI Infrastructure Fund from The Canada Foundation for Innovation and BCKDF, will establish the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research on Greenhouse Gas Exchange.

The laboratory will allow state-of-the-art climate research on greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration in Canada’s forested, tundra, and urban landscapes. The laboratory will share analytical technology, sensors, collaborative field platforms, and data management systems to study how much, when and where atmospheric greenhouse gases are emitted and sequestered across Canada’s major ecozones including major urban areas.

The laboratory will be hosted in the Physical Geography Labs of the Department of Geography and the Faculty of Arts; two of the principal investigators directly involved in the new laboratory are from the Department of Geography. Andreas Christen’s Micrometerology Group “develops methods to measure emissions of greenhouse gases over urban and disturbed landscapes”, and Greg Henry’s Arctic Biogeography Group “works on the responses of Arctic tundra to environmental changes, especially climate variability and change and associated greenhouse gas feedbacks”.

The technology developed in the laboratory can be used to select, validate, and help enforce emission-reduction strategies, and to quantify the carbon sequestration potential of Canada’s land surfaces. The infrastructure will further contribute to new technology development and transfer, in particular the development of novel sensors. The program will provide Canada-specific datasets that are currently not available, to inform, validate and improve forest-growth models, land-cover models, climate models, and urban-emission models at scales relevant for planning and decision making. The research will guide and inform the sustainable growth and management of Canada’s natural resources and the associated economical activities.

Jamie Peck Named Highly Cited Researcher in 2015


Congratulations Professor Jamie Peck who features in the latest Thomson Reuters “Highly Cited” listing for the social sciences, which measures the 1% most cited researchers in the world by subject field! Across Canada, there are thirteen social scientists on the 2015 list.